GCSEs, academies and disadvantage: a higher standard of government misinformation

Dr Terry Wrigley, Visiting Professor, Leeds Metropolitan University

Editor  Improving Schools journal

26 January 2012

(Updated 2 February 2012)


A mass of data was released by the Department for Education in January, concerning last June’s exam results after they had been checked by schools. Inevitably, schools minister Nick Gibb’s and his spin doctors had their press release ready to put a particular slant on the figures.


We are well accustomed to press statements which manipulate rather than inform, but it is hard to stomach this Coalition government minister’s rhetoric of concern for disadvantaged young people.


Gibb makes a big issue of the low achievement of  ‘disadvantaged’ pupils (defined here as those entitled to free school meals or in care – numerically, mainly the former). This degree of underachievement is sadly nothing new, of course: successive Coalition and New Labour governments have blamed teachers for the poverty-related achievement gap while doing little, even in economic boom times, to reduce Britain’s scandalous level of child poverty which affects nearly 1 in 3 children.


The headline figure is appalling, but no surprise: 33.9% of disadvantaged pupils achieved 5 or more A*-C grades including English and Maths, around half the proportion (58.2%) for all maintained schools. That this is not improving is indicative of the acute demoralization of many young people, but also shows that 20 years of top-down pressure, league tables, Ofsted, blaming teachers and naming and shaming of schools, has done nothing to reduce the achievement gap.


Gibb then twists the figures to distract us from government attacks on the poor by blaming the teachers. He compares the achievement of the best and worst performing schools with 10 or more disadvantaged pupils: in 339 of these, fewer than 20% of disadvantaged pupils achieved 5A-C with English and Maths, but in 21 schools more than 80% did so.


The comparison is specious. The composition of these schools is widely different: 10 pupils out of, say, 200 in a year group is only 5%, whereas many schools have 35-50% of young people on free meals. This has a serious impact on school climate and on the work of teachers. In the most disadvantaged areas, teachers have to spend vast amounts of time patching up the consequences of poverty (widespread disaffection, children having to move house, family breakdown, poor health and in some cases neighbourhoods torn apart by drug abuse and crime). The number of disadvantaged pupils in a school also tells us nothing about the rest of its population: two schools might have 25% on free meals, but in one, half the parents could have A-levels or degrees, and in the other hardly any. This can make an enormous difference to the general climate and motivation in a school.


In fact, it turns out that 10 of the 21 schools where Nick Gibb claims disadvantaged pupils achieve well only allow them through the door if they are already academic high-fliers. These are grammar schools which select only the most able. Another 5 are officially comprehensives, but with an intake which is strongly weighted towards the most able. We are left with only 6 schools where disadvantaged students have exceptional success.  It is interesting that all of them are small (90-150 per year group), and that three select their pupils on religious grounds (one Catholic, one Sikh and one Muslim school). Doubtless much can be learnt from these six schools, but they are too rare to support the minister’s blaming teachers in thousands of others.


Nick Gibb’s press release moves through various statistics to continue the attack on teachers. I would not wish to claim that teachers cannot make a difference to the achievement of disadvantaged young people, but it is wrong to exaggerate this difference and scapegoating teachers does nothing to improve schools. Much the reverse.


Soon after taking power, the Coalition introduced the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) as a new measure of school effectiveness. To achieve this, a pupil needs A*-C in English, Maths, double Science (or two separate sciences), a foreign language, and either history or geography. All of these must be GCSEs; alternatives such as BTEC don’t count. There are good reasons for wanting a broad curriculum for 14-16 year olds, an entitlement for every pupil, though some equally important subjects such as creative arts or media studies have been left out. There are also reasons to suspect that the “equivalent” certificates might be easier than GCSE A-Cs, and steps are underway to abolish them. The last government undermined the breadth and balance of the school curriculum by encouraging schools to exploit these “equivalent” certificates, allowing some to count as the equivalent of four GCSEs. But is it cynical to suggest that the Ebacc was adopted as a device to exaggerate the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools? It is doubtless easier for independent or grammar school pupils to achieve consistent success across six subjects, but inner city schools are more prone to inconsistent pupil performance.


Gibb points out that one in six pupils nationally obtained an Ebacc, against only one in 25 disadvantaged pupils. This is certainly a problem. He doesn’t say (surprisingly perhaps) that this was partly a result of government agencies pushing schools into gaming with “equivalents”, whatever the damage to the curriculum.


A disastrous day for academies


The schools minister completely fails to mention the dreadful Ebacc results of academies, where only one in 33 pupils achieved Ebacc – even though most of their pupils are not disadvantaged. On average, of pupils nationally who got 5A-Cs with English and Maths, 33% achieved Ebacc. In academies, the proportion is 12%. It is even worse (about 8%) once you remove academies which are former independent, grammar or other very high achieving schools. In 66 academies, no pupils got Ebacc, in 41 just one did, and in 190, five or less. In other words, leaving aside grammar and other selective schools, around 80% of academies saw 5% or fewer pupils gaining Ebacc.


This is because academies have been particularly good at gaming with so-called “equivalent” qualifications. Government agencies encouraged them to prove their superiority by notching up “5 A-Cs or equivalent” by whatever means. They were highly successful – in exploiting the rule which counted English and Maths and an computing certificate as equal to 5 good GCSEs. In fact, the data which Nick Gibb didn’t highlight shows how few academies pupils obtained their 5 A to Cs by GCSEs alone (38% by GCSEs alone, 50% including by “equivalents”; the figures for all maintained schools are 53% and 59% respectively, a much smaller gap). Whether academy pupils will be able to persuade employers and universities of this “equivalence” is another matter.


The over-exploitation of “equivalents” leads to a grossly inflated impression of academy achievement. It is embarrassing enough that 39 academies, or 1 out of 7, were below the ‘floor target’ of 35% 5A-Cs with English and Maths “or equivalent”.  (This compares with 1 in 34, from all schools nationally.) For those who argue that the “academy effect” takes time to work, it is worth pointing out that the statistic is no better if we look at academies open for 2, 3, 5, 6 or 7 years.


But if we consider how many pupils achieved 5A-C with English and Maths by GCSEs alone, academies do much worse. The gap (with v. without equivalents) is 6 percentage points nationally. If we allow for this, producing a notional “GCSE only” floor target of 29%, we find 118 academies are below the floor – worse than 1 in 3. 77 are below 25%, 44 below 20% and 11 below 10% 5A-C with English and Maths by GCSEs alone. This is against a national average of 52.3 for all maintained schools.


There are some amazing gaps. One academy has 70% with equivalents, and 0% without. Ten others showed gaps of 30s and 40s between ‘with equivalents’ and ‘GCSE only’ figures. The achievement record of academies is built on quicksand.


Gibb is scornful of the fact that only 33.9% of disadvantaged pupils nationally gained 5A-Cs with English and Maths ‘or equivalent’. Perhaps he is unaware that the majority of academies, i.e. 145 out of 269, do worse than this. If we subtract academies making very high use of “equivalents”, we are left with only 87 above 33.9%. Around a third of these are converted grammar or independent schools or CTCs, in other words schools which reject most disadvantaged pupils: some of these have 0 pupils with free meal entitlement. There are, therefore, only about 60 out of 269 academies where we can honestly say that disadvantaged pupils do well.


The new data makes a detailed comparison between the results at age 16 and levels at the end of primary school. It shows what percentage of pupils with level 4, and of those below or above level 4, obtain various qualifications at age 16, including making satisfactory progress in English and Maths. The results for each KS2 level are almost exactly identical for academies as for all other schools, except of course that fewer will include Ebacc and more will be in the form of “equivalents” in academies than elsewhere. There is absolutely nothing in the data to suggest that either average or more or less able pupils (according to KS2 levels) progress better in academies than in normal comprehensive schools.

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